February is American Heart Month, a time to think about how you can protect your heart. Do you have heart disease in your family? Is anyone taking medications for high blood pressure or high cholesterol? What about diabetes? According to the American Diabetes Association, having diabetes is a heart-health burden in itself.
While you are young (in your 20s and 30s) or young at heart, and especially during COVID-19, now is the time to make lifestyle habits that will help protect your heart for a lifetime.
A Wake-Up Call
Several years ago, I had the chance to attend a Go Red for Women’s Heart Health luncheon (now called the Wear Red campaign), and I was moved by the 29-year-old keynote speaker as she described her personal wake-up call from one year prior.
She was a very fit, marathon runner at the time and one morning she woke up with mild chest pains, feeling sick to her stomach. She wondered if she was having a heart attack, but quickly dismissed it because her thought was: “I’m a healthy young woman. I couldn’t be having a heart attack.”
When the symptoms didn’t go away, she did what any smart woman would do: she called her sister (who happened to be a nurse), but she lived 500 miles away. On hearing her symptoms, her nurse sister told her to call 9-1-1 immediately. Sure enough, she was having a heart attack, and as they say, she luckily “survived to tell the tale.”
It was a wake-up call, and it can happen to anyone: young, old, men, women, rich, poor, people of all ethnic backgrounds and races. Now that I have gotten your attention, let’s review some other stats and risk factors before we get to the good news. (Spoiler alert: you can protect yourself if you start taking care of your heart, now).
Time to Love Your Heart
Most college students think they are immune to chronic health conditions such as heart disease. The truth is heart disease is happening to younger adults more and more often. This is partly because the risk factors that lead to heart disease (high blood pressure, obesity, type 2 diabetes, physical inactivity and poor diets) are occurring at younger ages.
The research shows that adults with heart conditions (and risk factors such as obesity and diabetes) are also at increased risk of severe illness from COVID-19, which makes it even more important to watch your diet and stay active.
Heart-Disease Risk Factors
- High blood pressure. Millions of Americans of all ages have hypertension or high blood pressure. Having high blood pressure (more than 130/80 mmHg) that is out of control is one of the biggest risks for heart disease and stroke.
- Obesity. More than 1 in 3 Americans are considered obese (BMI or body mass index of more than 30). Particularly risky is body fat that accumulates around the abdomen, often referred to as an “apple-shaped” body. Carrying extra fat around the belly (versus the hips as in a “pear-shaped” body) puts extra stress on the heart.
- Diabetes. Having uncontrolled diabetes is risky because sugar (glucose) builds up in the blood and can damage blood vessels and nerves that help control the heart muscle. More than 1 in 10 people in the United States have diabetes. A diagnosis of pre-diabetes is like the red blinking light in your car: It tells you it is time to pull over and get something fixed. In this case, take steps to prevent pre-diabetes from developing into diabetes.
- High cholesterol. High blood cholesterol can increase your risk for heart disease. You want your total blood cholesterol to be under 200 mg/dL, your LDL (bad cholesterol) or low-density lipoprotein cholesterol to be less than 100 mg/dL, and your HDL (good cholesterol) or high-density lipoprotein cholesterol to be 40 mg/dL or greater for men and 50 mg/dL or greater for women. Carrying extra body weight, smoking, eating unhealthy foods (too much saturated fat and sugars), and not getting enough physical activity can all contribute to unhealthy cholesterol levels.
- Smoking. Smoking is a risk factor for heart disease because it damages the blood vessels. More than 35 million U.S. adults are cigarette smokers, and thousands of young people start smoking each day.
- Sedentary lifestyle. Any kind of physical movement is good for you (walking to the dining commons or around campus, taking the stairs, dancing, swimming, biking, running, strength training), and Americans are just not getting enough. Only 1 in 4 adults get the recommended 150 minutes of moderate activity a week. Staying physically active helps keep your heart and blood vessels healthy.
- Unhealthy eating patterns. Most Americans consume too much sugar, sodium and saturated fat (often found in overly processed foods, cheese, soft drinks, sweets, desserts and salty snacks) and fall short on nutrients such as dietary fiber and potassium (found in whole grains, beans and legumes and fruits and vegetables). Only about 1 in 10 adults get enough fruits and veggies in a day.
Two Heart-Healthy Eating Approaches
The DASH Diet, which stands for Dietary Approaches to Stopping Hypertension, along with the Mediterranean Diet are two good lifestyle eating plans. They also top the 2021 expert-reviewed best heart-healthy diets list published by on US News and World Report.
To sum up both meal plans, they focus on eating lots of fruits and vegetables, legumes, plant proteins, beans, whole grains, and seeds and nuts. Lean proteins, low-fat dairy and healthful fats (like olive and canola oil, and omega 3s from salmon, nuts and seeds, avocados) are also recommended. They focus on a colorful plate and portion control, too.
Check out this link to download Heart-Healthy Eating from the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics.
Love Your Heart and Comfort your Soul
There are all kinds of ways to add more vegetables and beans to your diet including the hearty Italian classic: Minestrone soup. Traditionally made to use up leftover vegetables, Minestrone can start with fresh, frozen or canned veggies, pasta and beans you have on hand. This delicious, soul-soothing soup is a favorite of Sargent Dining Director, Kerry Hieber. In her Teaching Kitchen, she shares her recipe for homemade Minestrone Soup — and all the ways you can make it your own. Enjoy!
- 2 Tbsp canola oil or olive oil
- 1/2 cup fresh yellow onion chopped
- 1/2 cup fresh celery stalks chopped
- 1 fresh carrot peeled and chopped
- 1/2 cup cabbage chopped
- 1 fresh green bell pepper or red pepper, chopped
- 1 fresh yellow squash or zucchini, chopped
- 1 bay leaves
- 1 tsp dried oregano
- 2 cloves fresh garlic diced
- 15 oz canned cannellini beans or white beans, rinsed, and drained
- 1 oz canned kidney beans rinsed and drained
- 1 cup corn frozen
- 15 oz canned tomato soup + 3 cups water
- 14.5 oz canned diced tomatoes, no added salt
- 2 sprigs fresh thyme or dried
- 4 fresh basil leaf cut into strips
- 1/2 cup peas frozen
- 1 cup pasta cooked separately, then add to soup
- 1 tsp ground black pepper
- 1/2 tsp salt or to taste (optional if watching salt intake)
- 1/2 tsp crushed red pepper flakes to taste (optional)
- In a large pot, cook onions, celery, carrot in a few tablespoons of oil; cook 2-3 minutes. Add cabbage, yellow pepper, squash, bay leaf, oregano and garlic; cook another 5 minutes. Add beans, corn, tomato soup plus water. Bring vegetable broth to a slow simmer until vegetables are soft. Add peas and pasta; season to taste. Simmer until soup reaches desired consistency; add extra water if needed. Remove bay leaf. Serve immediately and top with fresh basil and a sprinkle of Parmesan if desired.
This article originally appeared on the Northwest Dining Blog.
- Virani SS, Alonso A, Benjamin EJ, Bittencourt MS, Callaway CW, Carson AP, et al. Heart disease and stroke statistics—2020 update: a report from the American Heart Associationexternal icon. Circulation. 2020;141(9):e139–596.
- CDC, National Center for Health Statistics. National Health Interview Survey, Figure 8.1. Prevalence of current cigarette smoking among adults aged 18 and over: United States, 2006–2018external icon.
- U.S. Department of Health and Human Services. Executive Summary: Physical Activity Guidelines for Americans, 2nd Edition pdf icon[PDF – 434 KB]external icon
- Whelton PK, Carey RM, Aronow, WS, Casey DE, Collins KJ, Himmelfarb CD, et al. 2017 ACC/AHA/AAPA/ABC/ACPM/AGS/APhA/ASH/ASPC/NMA/PCNA guideline for the prevention, detection, evaluation, and management of high blood pressure in adults: a report of the American College of Cardiology/American Heart Association Task Force on Clinical Practice Guidelinesexternal icon. J Am Coll Cardiol. 2018;71(19):e127–e248.